30. Old Money

wallet

“I’m exhausted.” “Poor baby; been lifting your wallet?”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 28 March 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 18 April 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino, Steven Dean Moore
  • Animation director: David Silverman

Fox Television took The Simpsons off the air for most of March 1991. The network needed to ration new episodes so they didn’t run out before the all-important “sweeps week” beginning in late April, when research company Nielsen compiled its next quarterly batch of TV ratings based on viewers’ diaries. The show was also suffering production problems. Several of the remaining episodes were running late, and one, Blood Feud, would end up so far behind schedule that it wouldn’t be ready until July. David Stern was invited to join the writing staff to help with the workload. On top of this, US TV schedules were being shunted around constantly and often without warning since the start of Operation Desert Storm in January. But despite all the disruption, The Simpsons was able to return to screens at the end of March with this absolute gem.

Plot
Grampa Simpson – here named Abraham for the first time – falls in love with Bea, a fellow resident of the retirement home. When she dies and leaves him all her money, Abe struggles to decide how to spend it. It sounds like a maudlin tale peopled largely by geriatrics, but it’s actually capering of the highest order and manoeuvres at lightning speed through courtship, bereavement, estrangement and reconciliation with the lightest of comic touches. A dazzling amount is compressed into just 22 minutes; Abe and Bea’s relationship seems to span several weeks but runs for about half a minute of screen time, while the family’s accidental overnight stay in a safari park lasts five seconds. In earlier episodes these sorts of events might have been considered enough to fill an entire act. Now they are dispensed with joyous abandon to make room for the next set-piece, pushing the plot further and faster with each passing scene. The effect is exhilarating. 9

Characters
Helping to keep the story robust as it whizzes through numerous locations and along several diversions is the characterisation of Abraham Simpson. Right from the off, as he complains at spending another boring Sunday with his family, his irascibility is grounded in regret, not stupidity. All his actions, even toying with blowing all of Bea’s money at a casino, are ones with which we can sympathise, because we’ve seen how lonely he feels and how happy Bea made him. “Out of my way,” he announces on returning to the retirement home from another mirthless family outing, “I’ve got a date with an angel!” “You don’t know how right you are, Abe,” sighs Jasper, for Abe is too late: Bea has passed away, and the two old men console each other under sad skies:

death

Grey day

The Abe of this episode is stubborn, but with a capacity for kindness; he is crotchety but also fallible. “Jeez,” he admits when flirting with Bea, “you’d think this would get easier with time.” He also has a genuinely sweet relationship with his grandchildren, especially Bart, who visits him to ask for some of Bea’s money so he can buy, among other things, some nunchucks, a monkey, and “that baseball card where the guy’s flipping the bird”. “Oh, I seen that one,” Abe chuckles. Some thoughtful depictions of the rest of the Simpson family, especially Homer agonising over his dad’s behaviour, plus the debut of Professor Frink (“To be honest, the death ray only has evil applications”) round off a consistently entertaining ensemble. 9

Locations and design
This episode probably visits more original locations per minute than any in the show’s history so far – and they are all, no matter how briefly they appear, beautifully designed. Starting with the smallest, we have Abe’s bedroom, a cornucopia of tat and murk:

*mumblegrumbleoldmanmoaning*

*mumblegrumbleoldmanmoaning*

The corridors in the retirement home are splendidly derelict:

Ain't no time to fix the ceiling

Ain’t no time to fix the ceiling

– as is the dining room; the poster on the wall, with its half-hearted stab at positivity, is an inspired touch:

How much?

How much?

The music room is lit beautifully with muted colours and in semi-darkness, as if an abandoned palace of varieties:

Play it, Abe

Play it, Abe

Moving outside, Springfield’s roster of desperate attractions has expanded to include the Museum of Barnyard Oddities, the Glass Blower of Old Springfield Town and the Springfield Mystery Spot – none of which, regrettably, we get to see. We do visit Discount Lion Safari, however:

cheaper

“DISCOUNT LION SAFARI!”

A bereaved Abe frippers away some of Bea’s money on trips to Club Mud and the exceptionally-named DIZ-NEE LAND:

nee

…OR ANYTHING ELSE…

He later goes on a senior citizens’ away day to a casino over the state line, easily the gaudiest thing to yet grace a Simpsons episode:

state

Greek financial crisis

The furthest and most fleeting location is an unnamed tropical shoreline:

She went of her own accord

She went of her own accord

All in all, an itinerary of Palin proportions. 9

Pardon My Zinger
Pick of the bunch has to include the family’s attempts to describe how Abe smells. Bart goes for “that trunk in the garage where the bottom’s all wet”, Lisa opts for “a photo lab” while Homer insists: “Grampa smells like a regular old man – which is more like a hallway in a hospital.” Abe’s pithy relationship with Herman the antiques dealer is still as ripe as before. “Herman,” he announces, “a very special lady is having a birthday tomorrow!” “Ah, the battleship New Jersey!” Herman beams, to Abe’s disgust. Later Herman asserts: “Nothing says ‘I love you’ better than a military antique,” before trying to sell Abe’s headgear:

Assassy-headwear

Assassy-headwear

Mr Burns unleashes his very best unctuous patter when attempting to obtain Bea’s money from Abe, hissing: “Mr Simpson, I dread the day when $100,000 isn’t worth grovelling for!” Then there’s this smashing run of dialogue at the casino:

Abe (defiantly): Put it all on 41. I’ve got a feeling about that number!
Croupier: The wheel only goes to 31, sir.
Abe (equally defiantly): OK: put it all on 36. I’ve got a feeling about that number!

Abraham Simpson, defined. 8

Special guests
Audrey Meadows is just right as Bea: plaintive, warm but spiky enough to make the character a plausible match for Abe. It’s a pity she is not in the episode for longer. Meadows was best known in 1991 for appearing in sitcom The Honeymooners, which existed in various formats on US television from the 1950s through to the 1970s. Phil Hartman makes his second appearance as Lionel Hutz, telling Abe that a condition of Bea’s will is that “you must spend one night in A HAUNTED HOUSE… just kidding!” He also has a plum cameo as the welcomer at Plato’s Republic Casino. 8

ENJOY

“Hello, I am Plato. My philsophy is: ENJOY!”

Music
Abe and Bea croon a version of the Gershwin tune Embraceable You that just about manages to steer clear of corn. The razzle-dazzle cue that Alf Clausen supplies for the casino – all blaring trumpets and shimmering strings – is one of his best and will make many reappearances in the show whenever a character has a brush with the high life. He also ratchets up the pressure with aplomb in the casino sequences when Abe looks like blowing all of Bea’s money. 7

Voices
Dan Castellaneta carries most of the episode single-handedly, by and large without a slip. Only occasionally does Abe resemble the cranky cliché of season one. The rest of the time Castellaneta voices him with a range and depth we’ve not heard before. He makes Abe’s response to Bea’s death sound genuinely heartbreaking, while his anger at Homer believing Bea was merely imaginary (“Oh! You have a GIRLFRIEND! Well, happy birthday Bea!”) is a delight. The scene at Bea’s funeral is mini-tour de force, as Castellaneta shuttles back and forth between father and son with gusto. “Is someone talking to me?” Abe mock-grumbles when Homer asks a question, “I didn’t hear anything.” “OH NO,” Homer wails, “Dad’s lost his hearing!” 8

Animation direction
Unlike its chief protagonists, Old Money moves at the pace of a sprightly infant. This isn’t David Silverman simply being contrary. Rather his energetic direction is exactly what the episode needs to complement its frantic plot and vast geographical canvas. It’s not simply a smear of fast-changing images either. There is precision among the mania: for example, the way Abe’s disgruntled face keeps popping into view as the Simpsons’ car bumps along the safari road:

"Are we in Africa yet?"

“Are we in Africa yet?”

– or the multiple perspectives deployed during Abe and Bea’s ascent up the rollercoaster:

A view to a thrill

A view to a thrill

– or the way Homer doesn’t simply run but leaps, bobs and bounds across the casino floor in search of his dad:

"YAAARRRRGH!"

“YAAARRRRGH!”

The editing of this latter scene in particular is really exceptional, the accelerating cuts really piling on the tension. 8

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
One of the best sequences in the entire episode – Abe and Bea devouring their pills lasciviously – nods to Tony Richardson’s 1963 film adaptation of Tom Jones:

*mastication*

*mastication*

*lubrication*

*lubrication*

Abe recites a garbled version of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If… at the casino, while his late-night tour of Springfield ends with him recreating one of the most famous images in the history of American art: Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting Nighthawks:

Pop art

Pop art

Not nearly as prestigious is the always-unwelcome Marvin Monroe. He turns up at the retirement home to pitch an isolation chamber to Abe: a gimmick that spoofs the “Skinner box”, a piece of laboratory apparatus devised in the early 1930s by BF Skinner. 7

Emotion and tone
If you’re in the wrong mood, this episode may feel a bit cloying. Some of the sentimental scenes, especially the moment towards the end when Abe looks from his wrinkled hands to the bent backs and tired faces of his peers, can seem over-wrought and at odds with the show’s more familiar sceptical take on human emotions. But this is to misconstrue raw tenderness as mushy hokum. Just as the humour is barbed, impassioned and sometimes cruel, so is the sadness. There is no artifice here. Both the jokes and the sorrow come from the same place: the heart. 9

"Come on in..."

“Come on in…”

"...dignity"

“…dignity’s on me, friends.”

Verdict: 82%
One of Abraham Simpson’s finest hours. He’d rarely appear this sympathetic again.

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